Therapy gone wrong


Therapy gone wrong


your avatar   Stacey, 20-year-old woman

I started therapy for the first time ever with this one guy and things didn't work out. He said he would consult another therapist on certain subjects of concern, and then next session, it was very apparent he forgot. He did this a lot so I went to another psychologist. I told him what was bothering me, my goals, things that happened as a child, as a teen, etc. He said that as I was telling him these things, I seemed very unemotional. So he proceeded to explain that when people go through traumatic things in life, they dissociate, etc. (I kept spacing out when I was answering questions, then couldn't remember what we were talking about). Next session he told me that in order for me to move on in my life I had to confront the things that caused me pain in my childhood. I told him (and I still firmly believe I have) that I have. He said “Well, repeat it until it is resolved.” “How?” I asked. “Talk to the person, or approach the situation.” “I have, I repeated.” And he just simply said, "Do it again.”

If this can take twenty years to resolve, then why is there therapy to help with your problems? It's obvious I've confronted what had hurt me as a child, but what's the point of life if you have to continue living with this pain? Did I misunderstand what he said? I got upset and left during his session, because basically, what he was telling me was there was nothing he could help me with.


    Margaret Burr, MA, MFT


Thanks for writing. First off, I want to apologize for the unprofessional (Mr. Forgetful) and ineffective (Mr. "Just Do It - again") therapists you saw. That you are still searching and have reached out to an online counselor for help shows a lot of determination and, I think, a real desire to feel better about yourself and your life.

No one goes to therapy for twenty years. (If someone is going to see a therapist for that long, in my opinion, they are not getting therapy.) The length of therapy varies greatly from person to person, and from problem to problem, but there are basically two types of treatment - short-term and long-term therapy.

Short-term therapy, sometimes called brief therapy, addresses specific problems, with the idea that, by achieving short-term goals, a person can begin to feel effective and capable in his or her life, and this new self-efficacy can impact other areas of his or her life. This kind of therapy is generally time-limited from the outset, with the intention that certain goals will be reached in six, eight, ten or twelve weeks (sometimes more). The kind of problems which short-term therapy (arguably) addresses best are behavioral, and the approaches usually have specific names for what the treatment focuses on, such as anger management, impulse control, assertiveness training, etc.

Long-term therapy addresses deep underlying causes and conditions for emotional problems. The average length of this kind of therapy is within the range of 3-6 years. The reason this approach takes so long is that an ongoing therapeutic relationship - like any other relationship - takes a while to achieve, develop and maintain. Modeled after the developmental stages of childhood and adolescence, this therapy has beginning, middle and end stages, with the end phase being critical since it symbolizes individuation into adulthood.

In your case, long-term therapy would probably be about connecting emotionally to your childhood pain, and connecting emotionally to the need to dissociate in session. Most therapists, I believe, would say that making this connection (in session, with help from a therapist you trust) would then guide you to whatever the rest of your healing and recovery process would need to be. The resultant process may or may not have anything to do with confronting or confrontation; then again, it might - but there'd be no way to know that until you made the connection.

In order to do this, it would be very important that you feel safe and trusting of your therapist.

My recommendation to you is that you try therapy again. With this information in hand, you can be more informed about what you want and need.

If you encounter another therapist who upsets you, you can take this opportunity (in the session, in the moment) to confront him (or her) about his treatment of you. By doing that, you will be telling the therapist what you need - that you need to feel respected, listened to, understood, etc. Doing that - alone - might make the therapy feel safer for you.

While you won't always leave an effective therapy session feeling better than you did when you started it, it's very fair to expect to leave therapy less confused and with more information than you had to begin with.


Margaret "Peg" Burr , MA, MFT

This question was answered by Margaret "Peg" Burr. She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC34374) with a private practice in Santa Clarita (near Los Angeles). She performs psychodynamic psychotherapy with individual adult clients as well as couples, teens, and families. She also runs groups for adults and adolescents. Her specialty area is Object Relations Systems Theory. This branch of psychodynamic psychotherapy uses a client's interpersonal relationships as windows into his or her intrapsychic structure.For more information visit:


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